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Artist Profile: World-class Dale McKinnon talks about her adventures and love of the sea for two Whatcom READS! events

Daniel James Brown’s book, “Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold,” which, among other accolades, won the Washington State Book Award last October, is the current Whatcom Reads! selection. Brown will come to Bellingham in February for several public presentations.

The book is an a appropriate choice not only because Bellingham is slowing becoming a rowing mecca, but also because Bellingham is home to an amazing, world-class open-boat rower, Dale McKinnon. This week, McKinnon presents two talks about her life and experiences in one of the numerous Whatcom Reads! events at Bellingham and Ferndale libraries.

Question: What was your early athletic background?

Answer: In high school in Atherton, Calif., I swam 15,000 to 20,000 yards a day. In 1963, I broke five American records and was ranked third in the nation and 11th in the world in my specialty and became an alternate for the ’64 Olympic swimming team.

Q: What’s your career history?

A: About to graduate from Humboldt State University, protests over the shootings at Kent State closed all California colleges, so I went with friends to Maine to build an island cottage. The Vietnam War was a tumultuous time and felt like a cultural tsunami. I met someone, lived in Maryland and Mississippi and returned to California five years later. After 17 years as a photojournalist followed by 20 years as a technical writer, I’m starting my third career, as writer and dory builder.

Q: How did you become enamored with rowing?

A: I met my partner, Berns, in 1990 and in ’97 we moved to Bellingham. At the end of ’99, I badly shattered my left knee and spent a year on crutches and canes. In October 2001 I saw an elegant rowing dory with a drop-in sliding seat rig and had an “aha” moment, realizing it was going to be the way I’d recover from injury and trauma. I built, then launched my first dory, Mac, on my birthday in 2002 and rowed it to Nanaimo and back.

During my tenure as tech pubs manager at Alpha Technologies, I rowed from Ketchikan to Bellingham in 2004 and from Ketchikan to Juneau in 2005.

Q: What’s been a highlight from your rowing experiences?

A: While rowing south from Ketchikan I heard the legend of the “red canoe.” In November 2004, Betty Lowman Carey and her husband, Neil, arrived in Bellingham from Haida Gwaii looking for me. Betty’s 1937 row through the Inside Passage is documented in her book “Bijaboji: North to Alaska by Oar.” We became good friends.

In March 2009 I delivered Betty’s red dugout canoe to the Anacortes Museum, now on permanent display at the W.T. Preston Heritage Center at Cap Sante Harbor in Anacortes. Betty died in 2011 at the age of 96. I still visit Neil in Haida Gwaii.

Q: And any disappointments?

A: After the 2004 Alaska row, many asked me where they could learn to row. I subsequently discovered there were no resources for “citizen” rowing in Whatcom County. Whatcom was the only county in Washington with Salish Sea shoreline that didn’t have youth or adult community rowing programs.

Q: How did you alleviate that disappointment?

A: In 2005, rowing in Whatcom County emerged from decades of sporadic efforts to establish it outside of collegiate venues. WWU women’s crew won its first NCAA gold in 2005 and has since built a Division II dynasty. Fairhaven Merchants Association asked me to organize a rowing/paddling race along the Fairhaven waterfront ( danharrischallenge.com) as part of the annual Dirty Dan Days celebration. Ron Mueller of Wayland Marine and I sent out a press release to gauge local interest in forming an open-water rowing club and formed New Whatcom Rowing with 40 members.

In 2007, the nonprofit Community Boating Center in Fairhaven opened its doors to paddlers, rowers and sailors, offering lessons and rentals of kayaks and traditional pulling boats and fiberglass sliding-seat rowing shells ( boatingcenter.org/boat-rentals/rowboats).

In 2010, the Whatcom Rowing Association organized on Lake Whatcom (with the generous support of Bob Diehl). With a brand-new boathouse and dock at Bloedel Donovan, WRA is laying down a firm foundation for competitive and recreational rowing for adults and teens ( whatcomrowing.org/learn-to-row).

Simultaneously, the Lake Samish Training Center rolled up its overhead door ( carlosdinares.com/lake-samish-tc/ ), where Carlos Dinares trained Ursula Grobler to World Cup gold and silver medals and has been the erg trainer for the UW rowing team. Currently, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Ellie Logan (women’s eight) is training for the 2016 Olympics at the center.

In 2014, Rema Fit rowing studio ( remafitness.com) opened its doors to all fitness levels. Rema Fit offers low-impact, high-intensity exercise on state-of-the-art rowing ergs (rowing machines).

Q: What’s your take on “Boys in the Boat?””

A: “Boys in the Boat” is a fascinating history of Depression-era Seattle, and the Northwest as the thread of global events lead nine young men, all from Washington, to victory at the ’36 Olympics. And it elicits a loud “yahoo!” with “high fives” for the University of Washington rowing program that continues to produce so many national and Olympic champions.

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